A fragmented BABS is bad for the region

UPDATE: Bay Area Bike Share has confirmed that you can, indeed, dock bikes between any participating city. It’s unclear why Peter Colijn was unable to dock his bike.

UPDATED UPDATE: Well, the BABS website has been updated saying that San Francisco and the rest of the system are separate, in that you can’t bike from SF to other parts of the system, nor vice versa. But if you wanted to, say, bike from San Jose to Mountain View, you could dock your bike.

It took less than a week for an intrepid bicyclist to decide it was time to ride a Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) bike from San Francisco to Mountain View. Given our region’s strong corps of Bicyclists, it was only a matter of time, really.

But when the bicyclist, Peter Colijn, got to Mountain View, he couldn’t dock his bike. It seems BABS has set up not just different clusters of stations, but different systems altogether, where bikes from different clusters won’t dock at another cluster’s stations. This does not bode well for BABS.

As BABS expands, the clusters will get close enough that users could easily ride from one to the other.  By splitting what purports to be a unified system into chunks, riders won’t be able to do what it clearly seems like they should be able to do: ride across city lines. It will make rebalancing more difficult in the future, too, as the bikes won’t be interchangeable with one another.

There is a simpler reason why this is a bad idea: people will do dumb and unusual things with BABS, and splitting the system up will exacerbate the consequences.

As a long-time observer of Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) program, which uses the same technology as BABS, I can say that I’ve seen just about everything. People take out their bikes for the day, lock them to bike racks, take them on the Metro, bring them into the office, and all sorts of other things you definitely shouldn’t do with a bike share bike. (CaBi has assured me and others in DC that they are very willing to cut overage fees, especially for bikes out more than 24 hours, when people didn’t understand the system.)

The same thing will happen in the San Francisco Bay Area. People will take the bikes on Caltrain, do long-distance group rides, and other things that will cost them a great deal in overage charges, often unwittingly. If users can’t dock their bikes in different cities, they’ll get double pain. Not only will they get hit with overage fees, but they’ll be stranded with the wrong bike in the wrong area.

I suspect BABS separated the systems to make rebalancing easier. There’s no way for a cluster’s bikes to migrate away from it, so each city keeps its “fair share” of bikes. But this doesn’t account for users’ creativity or lack of knowledge about the system.

BABS should give people allowance to do things outside how they want users to ideally use their system. Let the hardcore cyclists do their marathon runs and brag about them on Strava – it’s free publicity! Let the inexperienced and the tourist take the bikes on Caltrain or ride them from San Jose to Mountain View. It would be easier to pick up bikes that people ride to the “wrong” place on BABS’ own time than to force innocent users to travel all the way back to wherever they came from. It would certainly beat the bad the publicity of an angry customer who, quite understandably, thought that all BABS stations were the same.

I have an email out to BAAQMD, BABS’ manager, to find out which clusters are interoperable and which aren’t. A comment on Cyclicious says Palo Alto and Mountain View bikes are interoperable, but I don’t know anything beyond that. See update above.

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Bikeshare Could Roll in Marin

This week TAM released a Request for Proposal allocating $25,000 to study whether Marin is suitable for a bikeshare system, and where it should go. If Marin eventually does develop its own system, it will join Montreal, London, Paris, New York, Minneapolis, and many other cities in implementing such a system.  

The RFP itself is not terribly interesting, though you can read it if you like.  It’s also not terribly intriguing that TAM is investigating bikeshare, as the authority has a history of investigating a wide variety of projects, no matter the project’s feasibility.  What is intriguing is that this comes as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is preparing to launch a bikeshare system with San Francisco, San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Redwood City; as SMART is under construction; as the Plan Bay Area gets into full swing; and as a bikemaggeddon is preparing to land in Sausalito with the America’s Cup.  Each of these could push bikeshare to the front of Marin’s mind and make it likely the system will actually be built.

What the devil is bikeshare?

DC Capital Bikeshare - CaBi

By James D. Schwartz

The first successful system in the United States was Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare, or CaBi for short, and it’s been replicated across the country since its rollout in 2010.  Subscriptions are fairly cheap: $7 for a day, $15 for a week, $25 for a month, and $75 for a year.  A subscriber takes a bike out of a station and can dock the bike at any other station.  The trip is free for the first 30 minutes but there’s a fee if the bike is out for longer.  Although it starts fairly nominal, the fee increases quite a bit once a trip goes longer than an hour.  The point is to get the bikes circulating, to replace single trips that might be too short for transit or too long on foot.  DC’s tourists use the system all the time, and it’s quite common to see families riding along the National Mall atop the striking red bikes.

DC’s residents, including me, use the system all the time.  Riding a bike in the city is just as fast as using a car and, for short trips, faster than taking the subway.  It keeps me active, pays for itself after a month’s use, is flexible and efficient.  It reintroduced me to bicycling and opened the city in a way the bus and metro never had.  Now neighboring cities are clamoring to join the CaBi system, while neighborhoods in DC are constantly fighting for new stations.

Not to say that CaBi doesn’t have problems.  Bikeshare depends on users circulating the bikes around from station to station.  Nothing’s worse than finding an empty bikeshare station when you want a bike or a full station when you need to park (you can get your time extended if the station is full).  Stations, therefore, need to be tightly packed so that if one station is empty or full, the next one isn’t too distant.  In Paris, the stations are sometimes no more than a block apart and don’t dissipate into the suburbs – there’s a hard boundary.  In DC, the stations are rather further spaced apart, which works reasonably well though being “dock-blocked”, as its known, still happens with maddening frequency.  The city contracts with a company to manually move bikes from full stations to empty ones, but it’s not quite enough.  A more decentralized city would mean less strain on certain stations as people commute, but barring that more stations, bikes, and members would go a long way to improving circulation around the system.

The Bay Area’s plan

System overview. Click for PDF.

BAAQMD is spearheading the San Francisco plan to establish a bikeshare system in the northeastern quadrant of the city and in isolated pockets along the Caltrain corridor.  Its centerpiece is the downtown San Francisco segment, centered around Market Street, which will include 500 bikes at 50 stations spaced 300 yards apart.  It’s set to open this summer, just in time for the America’s Cup, which will bring a flood of tourists to the city – tourists that will undoubtedly flock to bikeshare.

The San Francisco pilot area. Click for PDF.

The District argues that bicycles can function as an extension of the transit network, but transporting them on regional transit agencies is discouraged.  Bicycles are not allowed on BART during commute hours, and are limited on Caltrain.  The Warm Planet bike shop at Caltrain’s Fourth & King depot is over capacity, and transit is largely maxed out around Market during the commute.  Marinites face similar problems on GGT’s commuter buses and ferries.  Having a bike ready for anyone in the commercial heart of the city (not to mention the other commercial hubs along Caltrain) will give commuters a solution, allowing them to easily transfer to bicycles in the city without the need to fret over getting a bike to and from work.  A bikeshare system would also free a commuter to bike to work but not from it, or vice versa, if they don’t want to arrive at either end a little sweaty.  This encourages more bicycle use, more transit use, and, therefore, less driving.

Eyeballing Marin’s Bikeshare Suitability

Marin’s central and southern cities are ideally suited to the bicycle.  Commercial districts are close to one another and housing, meaning most residents are well within biking distance of at least one downtown.  Bikes are also better suited than the bus to traverse sprawling Novato or Terra Linda and can be a car replacement for most trips elsewhere.

Yet Marin is not terribly dense and has fairly mediocre bicycle infrastructure.  More than almost any other place, Marin is linear, with valleys branching off the 101 corridor.  The ideal grid, with its redundancies and infinite rerouting, is impossible over Marin’s ridges.  This isolates communities to their benefit and detriment, and makes cycling more difficult than it is in DC’s suburbs – it’s fairly difficult to ride from Fairfax to Lucas Valley despite the fact that it’s only as far as downtown San Rafael, as the crow flies.  Marin is also incredibly car-centric, rendering some of the county’s major thoroughfares entirely inhospitable to bikes or pedestrians.

Marin’s employment corridor is Highway 101.  Though office and retail exist in the downtowns tucked away from the freeway, the highest density of employment is along that central spine.  Those that don’t work along the corridor probably work in San Francisco, also down the corridor.

Bikeshare needs strong bicycling infrastructure, to ensure there is a good way to ride from place to place; population density to keep the system running throughout the day; and decentralized commute patterns to ensure certain areas don’t get overloaded as everyone goes to them, or denuded as everyone leaves them.  At first blush, Marin misses all three of these criteria, but it’s not enough to convince me Marin is unsuitable to bikeshare.  Those well-spread downtowns lend themselves to bicycling, and other systems, like CaBi, have had success in areas similar to ours.

I also want bikeshare to succeed in Marin.  Beyond the health, environmental, cost, and traffic benefits, bikeshare would reap political benefits for the county’s urban cycling infrastructure.  Transportation debates in the county are dominated by the driver’s voice, as most Marinites are drivers first and cyclists second.  Bicycle improvements, then, play second fiddle to parking, roads, and other projects that maintain or strengthen our reliance on the automobile.  When bicycling does enter the debate, focus is often on its recreational aspects rather than its functionality as everyday transportation.  Since bikeshare is unabashedly functional, growing its membership means growing the political base advocating for cycling improvements.

I’m excited to see what TAM’s study will show – Marin could reap so many rewards with the system.  With luck, the study will recommend the system.

Leaving ABAG Would Be a Mistake

Image from the Town of Corte Madera

Over the last year, rage against the Bay Area’s alphabet soup of regional authorities has simmered just below the surface of Marin politics.  Although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) got its share of hate for banning fires over Christmas and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) caught flack for housing mandates around SMART, it was the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process that drew the most fire by forcing localities to zone for more housing.  Marinites think their cities are already built out and so were incensed that an unelected agency could tell them to zone for more development.  The frustration has finally boiled over in Corte Madera, and there’s a push for the town to leave ABAG.  It would be a mistake if it did.

Background: The State of Local Control

The RHNA process comes once every seven years, driven by a state mandate to accommodate affordable housing within the state’s regions.  Sacramento directs regional agencies – ABAG in the Bay Area, SANDAG in San Diego – to assess housing needs in the area and assign a number of housing units regional towns, cities, and counties must zone for.  Marin has had trouble keeping up with the RHNA cycle and only now are the last towns finishing their housing plans.  Unfortunately, they took so long to finish that the next RHNA cycle is about to begin, dropping voters with more homes to zone for just as they figured out how to zone for the last bunch.

This cycle will be different.  ABAG is working with MTC, BAAQMD, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission (BCDC) to develop a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), tying housing allocations to transportation, air quality, and water quality.  This unprecedented level of regional coordination means communities will need to work within the still-incomplete SCS or face financial penalties, as the regional agencies control and disburse a great deal of federal and state funds.  After going through a round of grueling negotiations over the last cycle’s allocations and angst over the loss of local control, the SCS is just one more thing for local politicians to worry about.

Pulling Out

Into this walked Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilwoman Carla Condon.  For months she has argued that the association is trampling local rights, pursuing a social engineering project to make Corte Madera look like Oakland.  Mayor Bob Ravasio concurs, and would rather receive housing allocations directly from Sacramento.

I’m on record against these allocations – they distort the housing market and do rob cities of local control.  Yet I also know these allocations can do a great deal of good.  The densities mandated are not excessively high, and are met or exceeded in many parts of Marin, and they can give municipal councils an excuse to add housing near transit and historic downtowns.

Withdrawing from ABAG, as Corte Madera is considering, would not change either of those realities.  By dealing directly with the state, Corte Madera would be setting itself up to deal with a bigger bureaucracy with less chance of coming out on top.  As well, pulling out of ABAG could create a logistical mess for Corte Madera at other regional agencies, as transportation funding and support will be tied to the RHNA process, making even more work for town staff to sort out the inconsistencies with every other government in the region.

Far better would be for Corte Madera to spearhead a Marin County housing subregion.  ABAG allows localities to create subregions that can assign their own affordable housing needs.  Although ABAG still gives the subregion a total number of units, the subregion can assign those units however it likes.  A hypothetical Marin subregion would reestablish a modicum of local control over the allocations, allowing amenable cities, like Mill Valley or San Rafael, to take more units while others, like Corte Madera or Novato, would receive fewer.  Allocation would happen through the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, so all localities would have a say in how allocations are made.

Alas, such a subregion would apply not to this coming RHNA cycle but the next, as the deadline for subregional formation passed last March.  As well, it’s unlikely Corte Madera would be able to pull out of ABAG for this coming cycle either, meaning any reform will need to come from within ABAG or be in preparation for the rather distant future.  Given the major bureaucratic reforms coming with One Bay Area, it’s too soon to say if the regional agencies will be too difficult for Marinites to handle.  In the interim, Councilwoman Condon should focus more on shaping the final RHNA numbers to Corte Madera’s liking than trying to pull the city out of the ABAG altogether.

Making Sense of Our Governmental Mishmash

Marin is governed by a huge number of overlapping governments, commissions, committees, agencies, authorities, departments and boards.  No wonder the Bay Area is so difficult to govern.

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a new page at the top of The Greater Marin, with links to every official entity with some power over Marin County development issues, from the White House to the Bolinas Public Utilities District.

At the Federal level, things are pretty clear.  Congress has oversight over the Executive Branch, which has issue-specific Departments and Agencies to deal with whatever regulations need to be enforced or enacted.  Laws get passed, but are typically implemented by the existing structure.

Lower down the chain, the situation becomes significantly murkier.  The Bay shoreline is managed by the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission, while the Pacific shoreline is managed by the California Coastal Commission.  Housing and urban development is even more touchy, with involvement from the Association of Bay Area Governments, the BCDC, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Joint Policy Committee, the County government, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, State regulations, and the affected city and county governments.  Transit further complicates affairs, as one or more of the Bay Area’s dozens of transit agencies gets involved, as well as the County transportation authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, State agencies and the US Department of Transportation.

At current count, for Marin alone I count seven unincorporated areas with governments, twelve incorporated cities and towns, four transit agencies, the Board of Supervisors and nine other regional entities with specific issue areas.

The good news is that most of the unelected bodies draw from Marin’s body of elected officials, so there is consistency of policy between them.  The SMART Board, for example, requires that some of its members sit on the TAM Board, to ensure that their policies have continuity, and that members are kept abreast of local transportation issues.

This agglomerated structure, though, leads to weakness and a sense that the unelected bodies are sent by Sacramento to intrude upon local sovereignty.  When the Clipper Card rolled out, it took a very long time for it to filter into the various member transit districts of the MTC, and even now not all transit agencies accept the card.  In the interim, local transit agencies spent millions of dollars to roll out similar cards, duplicating efforts, wasting money, and further prolonging the wait for a standardized smart card.

When Novato debated affordable housing mandates from ABAG, a continual complaint was that Sacramento was imposing its will upon the town.  When the city eventually finalized its rather modest housing plans, the chatter was that Novato had told off the State, not an Association on which its own councilmembers sit.

So what can be done?

On the one hand, Bay Area residents are fiercely independent and notoriously headstrong.  San Francisco has its own style, and it would just as soon not be lumped in with Fremont if it can be helped, Berkeley would blanche at being dictated to by Oakley, and the New York Times once called Bolinas the “Howard Hughes of towns.”  On the other hand, the Bay Area functions as a region and faces regional problems, from the Bay itself to the freeways and bridges.

One idea is to create a new office, a Bay Area Lieutenant Governor directly elected by the residents.  The official would act as advocate for Bay Area policy in Sacramento and coordinate policy between each of the disparate bodies that has authority over the region.  The election campaign of a Lieutenant Governor would unite the region in a way that is impossible under the current governmental mélange, while having someone at the top would mean greater legitimacy for the bureaucracy.

A less ambitious idea would be to simply consolidate the various bodies into a single unified hierarchy, perhaps under ABAG, and reduce overlapping mandates.  Any permitting would go through this unified structure.  The bodies would share staff, standardize forms and processes, and proximity would allow policies to rub off from one agency to another in a way that’s currently impossible.  A merger between ABAG and MTC was proposed in 2001 but eventually died due to internal opposition; the two agencies established the Joint Policy Committee instead.

But no politician or bureaucrat wants to cede power, and few people have the stomach to create government, even if it means streamlining what already exists.  There are so many sacred cows, so many little fiefdoms, in the current system that Bay Area residents will most likely be stuck with what they have for some time.  At the very least, now there’s an index to reference.